Address of Patriarch Michel Sabbah to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/ United States Catholic Conference, Jerusalem, 13.6.2001

Reverend and dear brother Bishops, first I want to express my thanks to you for your solidarity and your generosity towards our Church of Jerusalem. With the Holy See, you are a Church which cares for the Christians of the Holy Land and for the future of Jerusalem as a city sacred to Christians–as well as to Jews and Muslims. You continue to give an example, as witnessed by this meeting, of how to act as Church in response to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with thoughtful and courageous statements. On behalf of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops and the whole Church in the Holy Land, I thank you.

In my ministry as Latin Patriarch, I have taken to heart the affirmation of the Second Vatican Council that the Church “has the right to pass moral judgments, even on matters touching the political order.” (GS 76) I have attempted to be faithful to the mandate of the Council that bishops address “grave public problems,” including “questions of war and peace and brotherly relations among all people.”  The hardest part of the responsibility laid on us by the Council, as you well know, is “to set forth ways in which these very grave problems can be resolved.” (Bishops, 12)

 I have attempted always to teach on these matters as a bishop, faithful to Catholic social teaching, to the gospel, and to the law of love. I have likewise endeavored to speak and act in concert with the heads of the other Christian churches in Jerusalem. I have had many critics. I owe your conference a debt of gratitude for supporting positions I and the other patriarchs and heads of churches have taken. I am also grateful for the intervention of international chairmen, beginning with Archbishop John Roach, to defend me against personal attacks. You have been true brothers. I have four points to make:
(1) the current situation,
(2) the role of the Church in the present crisis,
(3) the Christian community in the Al Aqsa intifada,
and (4) a vision for the future of the Church in the Holy Land.

(1) The Current Situation

1. We are living these days the most difficult period of a century- long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, a conflict of two peoples, and two nationalisms, over the same small territory.

From the Palestinian side, violence is manifested by stone throwing, gun shooting, and ‘mystical’ suicide bombings.

From the Israeli side, this violence includes: the sealing of Palestinian towns and villages, the demolition of agricultural fields, the destruction of olive groves, bulldozing houses, indiscriminate shelling and bombing of Palestinian towns and villages, and military protection of settlers who take their own retaliation.

For our part, the patriarchs of Jerusalem have affirmed that “it is the right and the duty of an occupied people to struggle against injustice in order to gain their freedom.” At the same time, we also asserted that “non-violent means remain stronger and more efficient.” (Patriarchs, Nov. 2000). I remain firm in my belief that terrorism is “illogical, irrational and unacceptable as a means to resolve conflict.”(Seek peace, 1996, n.15).

As Christians, the violence of the present crisis represents for us an exacting test of faith. “If we are true believers in God,” as I have told my own people, we must  “ponder how our freedom, our political freedom, relate(s) to the word of God, who says that love must be the guide of man in the worst and darkest of circumstances, such as we are living today.” (Homily, St. Etienne, Oct.. 12, 2000)

1.2. Violence is only the visible aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. The press, the media, politicians, even statesman, try to reduce the conflict to various manifestations of violence, as if quelling the violence is sufficient to resolve the underlying problem. Violence has a cause, and the cause has to be removed in order to remove violence. That cause is the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land.

To make the picture clearer, the state of Israel comprehends today 78% of historic Palestine. This part was taken to form the state of Israel in 1948.  In 1967 Israel occupied the rest of Palestine, i.e. the remaining 22%.

For a long time, the Arab world and the Palestinians refused to recognize the existence of Israel. Since the 1991 Madrid Conference and the 1993 Oslo agreements, the Palestinians and much of the Arab world recognized the legitimacy of the existence of the state of Israel. With that the Palestinians conceded 78% of the land to Israel, they now claim the remaining 22% of the land, as their rightful homeland. They have been supported in this by United Nations resolutions calling for the exchange of land for peace.

Some say that late last year something close to the full transfer of territory might have been achieved. Experts disagree as to what the negotiators’ maps really meant. Meanwhile, in Palestinian minds, Israeli annexations, confiscations, settlement-building, by-pass road and security zone construction made the construction of a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza seem an impossible dream.. Indeed the same government that sought a negotiated peace built settlements at three times the rate of its predecessor. Together with the daily humiliations, deprivations, and frustrations experienced by the Palestinian people under occupation, these predations of Palestinian land built up an enormous reservoir of mistrust and frustrations which burst forth in the Al Aqsa intifada.

1.3. How shall we escape from this situation?

Israel’s priority is security, and that security remains threatened by Palestinian resistance as well as by the refusal of Arab countries to enter on a course of normal relations with Israel until justice is done to the Palestinians. Security for Israel can never be obtained through retaliation and force.. Accordingly, time has come to deal seriously with the Palestinian claims for freedom and independence. The best protection for the present and the future of Israel, the only way to have peace and security is the conversion of the Palestinian enemies of today into the friends of tomorrow.

As we saw in 1993 after Oslo, friendship is possible. Palestinians will reach out to Israelis in lasting friendship if justice is done to them. Hearts, friendly Palestinian hearts, are the best guarantee of security and peace.

2. The Situation of Christians

2.1. I know you want to hear about the condition of our Christian people. Let me tell you first how they see themselves.

Christian Palestinians are Palestinians. Hence, they are a part of the conflict. They may be found among the victims as among the survivors. They share in claiming their freedom and their land. The normal way Christians conceive their future is to see themselves a part of their people. To consider or to deal with Christians as a purely religious community, without any legitimate national allegiance or distinct culture, de-humanizes us.

In this matter, we take solace in Pope John Paul II’s teaching that national heritage plays an important part in people’s moral development and that in the context of a culture of peace “the way in which [a person] is involved in building his own future depends on the understanding he has of himself and of his destiny.” (CA 51; see 50.) Just as spirituality and political liberation were intermingled in the pope’s Poland, they are intermingled today for Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. The integration of nationality and faith is one you know well, too, from more than a century of struggle and exploration of how Catholics in the United States could be both Catholic and American.

Now, to the sad details–the suffering of our people:

2.2. In the eight months of the second Intifada, Christian towns or villages (Bethlehem, Beit-Sahour, Beit-Jala, Ramalla, Zababdeh) have been bombed. In the half-Christian, half-Moslem village of Aboud, encircled by settlements, more lands have been confiscated and olive trees were cut down. (Two days ago I was called by the parish priest to that village to meet with the Israeli ifficer on the road, while olive trees cutting was done) The sealing of towns and villages affected our parishes in all the Palestinian Territories depriving people of employment and essential services, and making normal life impossible. Even towns where there had been no violence were effectively put under siege with a strategy aimed at a civilian population which law-abiding nations abandoned long ago. As you know, some towns, such as Beit Jala were subjected to shelling even when there was no provocation based on a strategy of “general deterrence.” In December, our Latin Seminary and church in Beit Jala were shelled on the excuse that suspicious people were seen in the neighborhood.

The siege made access quite difficult for the Patriarch, the Bishops, the parish priests and almost impossible for the parishioners. The sealing affected the running of the schools and the transportations of teachers or students from village to town or vice versa. The general economic instability created financial problems for the schools reducing the schools’ tuitions to the minimum, and causing a deficit in the schools budget.

Lack of jobs for Christians as for all Palestinians is making daily food a hard matter. Catholic agencies (CRS, Pontifical Mission, Caritas, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre) and others are doing their best to help. Some emigrated or think of moving away. But emigration remains limited.

2.3. About our present: The principal action and support we need is political action for peace with justice. For on peace and stability depends in great measure the presence of Christians in the Holy Land now and in the future.

A second action needed now is the support of schools which are the basis of our pastoral action in our small Christian communities.

3. The Role of The Church in This Conflict

3.1. The Holy Father has pleaded repeatedly for a return to respect for international law in the resolution of this conflict and identified “contempt for international legality” as one of the causes of this conflict. The Church must make clear that the international community has played a responsible role in this conflict since its beginnings and so it bears responsibility to help in its  resolution. All the international community, Europe as much as the United States.

In keeping with the Holy Father’s counsel, the Church should also insist with political leaders on compliance with United Nations resolutions as the basis for settlement of this disupte. The international community, moreover, should be able to apply and enforce international law, including the laws of armed conflict, in this situation. No exception should be made for Israel and Palestine.

3.2 Because the media and interested parties try to hide the core problems from view behind the various manifestations of violence, the Church should insist with all the means at its disposal on re-definition of the conflict. The core of the question is the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian land occupied in 1967 and the Palestinian claims for their freedom and land.  Focusing on “terror and terrorism” abets evading the heart of the question, the occupation, which is systematic violence and the cause of all forms of violence.

3.3 Because justice for the Palestinians is the only way to give security to Israel, collaboration of local churches with Jewish communities for a new-shared vision of security for Israelis and justice for Palestinians is a much-needed step. You, in the United States, with your strong ties to the Jewish community, an exemplary Catholic-Jewish dialogue, and experience in common work of justice have a special role to play here.

5.4 The Church must continue to advocate for the future of Jerusalem. In this question I see the following elements:

First, the Church ought not to overlook the political aspects of the question as a matter of justice and a requirement of peace. Jerusalem remains at the center of Palestinian identity as it is of Israeli and Jewish identity. Palestinian sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem should be recognized. Secondly, as negotiations late last year appeared to show, shared, Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty over the same geography is possible.

Thirdly, for us the religious dimension of Jerualem is vitally important. Because of the unique holiness of the city, a special statute should be elaborated by this shared sovereignty and be supported by international guarantees. In addition, the present Status Quo in the Holy Places, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, should be respected without modifications. The recognized religious authorities remain responsible for their respective holy places, with the appropriate political power having the duty to offer religious authorities their help to maintain public order. Discussions last summer and fall give hope that this new religious regime for Jerusalem can be achieved.

3.5. Finally, the Church needs to be active in resolution of the refugee question. If Israel recognizes its responsibility in the phenomena and accepts the right of return in principle, the modalities of return will be more easily discussed. One possibility is that the settlements could be turned from a problem into an element of a solution if they were to be made homes for returning refugees. In addition, the international community must recognize its responsibility for helping create the refugee problem and for helping resolve it.

But a vision for the future is also to be prepared.